Automakers lobby against stricter pollution rules


Warning that consumers could pay more than necessary for cleaner air, the auto industry has launched a media blitz pressing Maryland and other East Coast states to drop controversial smog-cleanup plans requiring sales of electric and natural-gas cars.

The radio and newspaper ad campaign, begun this week from Maine to Maryland, comes as state officials move closer to accepting an auto industry alternative that drops any mandate for selling "advanced technology" vehicles throughout the Northeast and mid-Atlantic.

The American Automobile Manufacturers Association this week bought ads in 16 newspapers, including The Sun and The Evening Sun, and air time on 35 radio stations, urging the public to oppose their states' efforts to adopt California's stringent air pollution standards.

"The California plan could force consumers to buy expensive electric and natural-gas vehicles," warned the newspaper ad. The industry's plan, it continued, would cut pollution as much or more but cost "substantially less."

Environmentalists charged that the ads were inaccurate, and state officials complained that the industry's public-relations offensive could undermine the current negotiations on a compromise.

"It's not the best way to approach a bargaining partner," said David A. C. Carroll, Maryland's environment secretary.

But an industry spokesman said the ads would continue. 'We just had a Nov. 8 election that was a referendum on how politicians spend [the public's] money," said Jason Vines, spokesman for the automakers association. "We're going to make people aware."

The newspaper ads appeared Wednesday and are slated to run once more, Mr. Vines said, and the radio spots are running daily for the next two weeks. Mr. Vines said the Sun ad cost $15,277, but he would not disclose how much the industry is spending overall.

Maryland and other East Coast states have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to let them follow California's lead on pollution-control standards. The EPA has said it plans to decide by mid-December.

California, the smoggiest state inthe nation, has gone beyond federal requirements. It says that 2 percent of all cars and light trucks sold in 1998 must be powered by electric batteries or natural gas. That proportion would increase to 10 percent by 2004.

Massachusetts and New York have adopted similar requirements, prompting lawsuits from the auto industry, which opposes sales mandates.

Courts have upheld the states' actions so far, but other Eastern states, including Maryland, have shied away from embracing similar sales quotas. A petition filed by the Ozone Transport Commission, representing 12 Eastern states and the District of Columbia, asks the EPA to approve California's tailpipe emission limits and to allow states to require advanced-technology vehicles if needed to reduce pollution.

The auto industry has countered with an offer to make cars nationwide that are somewhat cleaner than federal law requires, but without any new pollution controls or new power sources.

The industry contends it cannot produce electric or natural-gas cars that the public wants to buy and drive -- a position disputed by environmentalists, entrepreneurs and utilities.

The industry asserts that its "49-state car" would reduce air pollution just as much as the plan drafted by East Coast states, and at a lower cost to new car buyers. Cars built to meet the states' requirements would cost $800 to $2,800 more than today, the industry says, while the cleaner car it proposes would cost $576 more. Both plans would yield gasoline-powered cars that are "almost 99 percent clean," the industry ad says.

Critics dispute the industry's claims. "I don't think the public thinks the auto industry has any credibility on cost," said Paul Billings, spokesman for the American Lung Association.

Lately, the EPA has signaled its desire to approve some version of the industry's offer.

In these continuing negotiations, the state officials recently were insisting that at least some electric and natural-gas cars be sold.

But Mr. Carroll, now taking a different tack, downplays the importance of setting such a target.

"A number of us have said for a long time that a 49-state car is pretty logical," he noted this week.

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